Die and Repeat: "Happy Death Day" throws slasher fans for a fun time loop

Happy Death Day (2017)
96 min., rated PG-13.

Over the years, there have been more than a few takes on the time-loop premise of 1993’s “Groundhog Day” (most recently as a teen drama with 2017’s “Before I Fall”), but it’s hard to believe no one ever tried putting a slasher-pic spin on it until now. With an inspired (and marketable) high-concept conceit and a morbidly tongue-in-cheek title to match, “Happy Death Day” is just what one might expect if Bill Murray kept reliving the same day and being murdered on a loop of resets. It sounds like the pitch of an idea that could practically write itself, but director Christopher Landon (2015’s “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) and screenwriter Scott Lobdell have a ton of fun tweaking the cycle of one character repeating the same day over and over until beating death, while abiding by genre tropes and then one-upping themselves just enough for the majority of a lean, pacey 96 minutes. “Happy Death Day” isn't the scarefest expected from Blumhouse Productions, and that scarcely matters because it is a clever, devilishly entertaining effort that successfully belies both its low budget and teen-friendly rating.

Bayfield University student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is having a rough morning on her birthday. After a night of partying, the hungover sorority sister wakes up bleary-eyed and in need of Tylenol in the dorm room of stranger Carter (Israel Broussard), just after she ignores a call from her father. Tree gets dressed and walks through the campus quad, bypassing an environmental activist with a clipboard and witnessing a sprinkler going off on a smooching couple and a car alarm blaring. When she gets to her Kappa Kappa Gamma house, Tree is approached by bitchy sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews) about her walk of shame and then roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who gives her a birthday cupcake that Tree throws in the garbage. She’s also late to class and then almost gets caught fooling around with her married professor (Charles Aitken). As the rest of her day comes to an end, she makes her way to her birthday celebration at a frat house, but before she makes it there, Tree is killed at the hands of someone in the cherubic Bayfield Babies mascot mask. Immediately, Tree wakes up in Carter’s dorm again, noticing the very familiar beats of a day she already lived through. It soon becomes apparent to her that she is going to keep reliving the same Monday and never see tomorrow until she unmasks who wants her dead. In the process of becoming determined to solve her own murder and take back her own life, Tree will begin to see what kind of person she is on the outside, but it’s one hell of a way to learn a lesson on her way to self-improvement.

Though a PG-13 slasher film is like the equivalent of sex with clothes on, “Happy Death Day” gets around that hurdle by being less of a straight-up slasher and more of a darkly comedic murder-mystery that just so happens to involve a temporal loop and a knife-wielding masked killer. Slickly crafted with an atmospheric flair and a Bear McCreary-composed score that adds an air of creepiness, the film offers several suspenseful, even thrilling set-pieces, including a sequence in Tree’s boarded-up bedroom where she tries outsmarting her killer, as well as a chase in a hospital parking garage. The use of a birthday candle igniting a trail of gasoline is a shrewd little touch, as are production design details like a "Today is the first day of the rest of your life" sticker and a poster of John Carpenter's "They Live" in Carter's dorm room. Even more so, though, the film is a puckish comedy, evidenced in none other than a montage, cued to Demi Lovato's "Confident," where Tree begins tailing those on her list of suspects but just keeps dying when she's not looking. Not unlike whodunit slashers “Scream,” “Urban Legend” and “Valentine” where the whole cast is a suspect, Scott Lobdell’s script toys with audience expectations in terms of who just might be a red herring and who is actually behind the mask, holding the knife/baseball bat/half-shattered bong.

Tree is a vapid, self-centered, eye-roll-ready heroine to follow, but the vivacious, charismatic Jessica Rothe (who played one of Emma Stone’s roommates in 2016’s “La La Land”) establishes herself as a breakout star in her first high-profile lead performance. Utilizing her sharp comic timing and expressive face, she finds a way to charm the viewer even when she acts like one of Regina George’s “Plastics" at the start. Once our protagonist realizes she’s experiencing more than just a mild case of déjà vu, Rothe gains sympathy and actualizes a fully earned arc for Tree, as she takes on a badass, no-fucks-left-to-give attitude that’s fun to watch and forces one to actively root for her. Unlike any doomed nubile victim in a slasher flick (like, say, 1981’s “Happy Birthday to Me”), Tree gets so many chances that she eventually wises up and makes a different choice each do-over in hopes of changing her outcome. Audiences hoping to discover why Tree is experiencing a time loop will be barking up the wrong tree; she just is. Overexplaining and finding too much real-world logic in this scenario would have deflated all of the fun, and director Landon and writer Lobdell understand this well. They do, however, take moments out of the film’s tightly repetitious schedule for a sweet romance that develops between Tree and sole support system Carter, played with instant likability by Israel Broussard (2013’s “The Bling Ring”).

Repetitive by design but efficient with time and the rules that have been set up, “Happy Death Day” hits the ground running and rarely runs out of steam as a genre entertainment played with gusto. Headed to its inevitable moralistic destination, the film may slow down a skosh to get heartfelt and shed some light on Tree grieving the death of her mother who shared the same birthday as her, but it adds a crucial core to a story that is essentially a one-joke gimmick. With a concept as enticing as the one here, there will be slight disappointment for slasher-film enthusiasts who will play out in their heads a different version of this script, one goosed with more screams and an R-rating that wouldn’t have restricted its makers from holding back. However, instead of dwelling on the route that wasn’t taken, the “Happy Death Day” that was made is a welcome addition to the horror hybrids that blend a sense of mirthful levity with the macabre. As a purely fun diversion for the Halloween season not intended to give nightmares, it takes the cake.

Grade: B